Postcards from Texas #1: the Continental Club

The Tender Things (with Jonathan Tyler) nailed ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’.

The Tender Things (with Jonathan Tyler) nailed ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’.

The Continental Club is dim in that dive bar way that makes you wonder whether the lights are actually on or actually off. Who ever really knows. Grandpa over there in the belt buckle doesn’t. Maybe he was Sheriff once but that’s history now. It’s Saturday night in Texas in the early fall. South Congress Avenue in Austin is lit and The Continental Club is evidently open. 

The lady behind the bar is busy digging out ice, fetching bottles from the fridge and gassing the soda hose for a steady stream of drinkers. She’s simultaneously cranky and affectionate. She might as well be deaf too. Shout all you will over the din; all she’ll do is wince and move her ear closer.

The shelves of booze behind her are glinting like rhinestones. A tangle of fairy lights webbing high on the bar’s back wall marries with a busy nest of framed photos that features everybody from Elvis to Kinky Friedman. Every time you line up for a beer at the Continental, it’s a museum experience. 

Drunk prophecies doom in cemetery in  Texas Chainsaw Massacre .

Drunk prophecies doom in cemetery in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

I dump a dollar bill in the tip jar. My abstractions of Texas are so grotesque I keep waiting for Jerry Jeff Walker to walk in. Or the drunk splayed on the blistered Bagdad Cemetery grass in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m stricken with the unshakable impression it's always 1974 in Texas.

The Continental Club site was a laundromat in the 1940s.  It’s also been a jazz club, topless bar (as some parlance goes), disco and tavern. Legend has it, once upon a time, the site was distinguishable by a happy hour that began at 6am and finished at 8pm. You could say that sounds much more sensible than any happy hour that begins at 6am and ends at 9pm. But the seedier element that gravitated to South Congress Avenue for what was formerly a more red-lit vibe has since been ghosted by hip shops, music venues, restaurants and gentrification’s continual rumble about curing everything.

So long as you can see the neon.

So long as you can see the neon.

If you want live country music, it’s not hard to find at the Continental. Artists like Junior Brown and Dale Watson have anchored themselves in some of the legendary residencies the venue has made a big part of its name on. The Continental is also recognised as a halfway house for many acts on course for bigger stages - not to mention all the others that essentially wind up missing persons. Even acts like The Replacements and Sonic Youth plugged in before their reputations preceded them.

Country act The Tender Things, the first support band tonight, moves into the home stretch of ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’. Houston singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell gets the songwriting credit for the song but Waylon Jennings scored his 11th Number One country single with the song in 1980. Waylon Jennings’ somewhat brawnier version perfectly captures the guts of outlaw country by sounding like it’s on the run from itself. Crowell’s lyrics, evocative through the imagery of jailhouses, Houston, lawmen and Texas Ruby, endow the song with a gung-ho spirit that makes you want to smash a Lone Star bottle over your head just to settle down. I hear four different bands cover it in Texas (and Margot Price in Melbourne a month later). Right now, The Tender Things sound like they're getting chased by the song too. Like fugitives, is how the band plays its shack-levelling version.

Out on South Congress Avenue after the first band, the sweetness of the balmy air is giddying. There are some teenagers queuing at the window outside Amy’s Ice-Creams and carloads of young party wolves are making a scramble of a queue at Home Slice Pizza. At this time, Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke is challenging Senator Ted Cruz for Senate in Texas. His orations have sparked a dewy optimism in progressives and his bromance with Willie Nelson has turned the stomachs of hard-booted Texas conservatives. I inch a little further along South Congress and run into a 20-something man with neck tatts and gauged earlobes. He wants 35 cents for the bus and wants to know if I’ve been punched in the eye. He says a homeless man broke his jaw in two places a while back. The last thing he says is to take care and that Austin is a cool city.

All noted.

Outside the Continental Club, the sign, a famous neon beacon for the nocturnals inching up and down the avenue, enhances the street’s groggy late-night atmosphere. A little way across the road, one of the Continental’s bedfellows, the Austin Motel, looks like a certifiable bed bug aviary. A bedbug aviary deserving of five-star status by virtue of its neon alone. You needn’t be a pervert, either, to observe that the Austin Motel’s vertical signage looks squarely like a phallic symbol.


The last band tonight is country-soul act Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights. The Dallas act has a propensity for Stonesy interludes and Tyler’s leathery vocals sit somewhere between early 1970s Rod Stewart and early 2000s Kings of Leon. A drunk woman in farmer overalls has clambered on stage - with much-needed help - to dance now. She watches the band members communing tightly in denim, tatts and hats. They are backdropped by a red stage curtain - badged with a large Continental sign and star - as they heat up the late-night slot. 

Austin, sometimes described as “a college town”, is a good place to run a motel with a neon phallic symbol for a sign. After the bands, people gradually start to amble back out the Continental’s large red doors. I talk to two drunk professors from Waco about the band. Then I listen to them talk a little bit about Waco and David Koresh. One of them is too drunk to drink but she’s adamant it’s time to go dancing at the next bar. The idea that Austin - with its progressive liberal character and faded murals of Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin tattooed in its architecture - is surrounded by Texas doesn’t sound so funny outside the Continental right now. At some point, the professors remark they prefer the people in Austin to the ones back home in Waco. They particularly dislike David Koresh. That’s about where it all ends.




The Enduring Threat of the Security of Nuclear Weapons

130 non-nuclear states are presently assembled at the United Nations to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. 

The nuclear ban treaty negotiations have highlighted deep division between the nuclear states (and the 30-odd umbrella states who purport to benefit from the protection of extended nuclear deterrence, Australia included) and the vast majority of non-nuclear states who support a ban on nuclear weapons.

Next Monday, a longform story I have contributed to Kill Your Darlings about tensions within Australia concerning the role the country should play in nuclear disarmament, will appear online, as the ban treaty negotiations near completion.

Professor Joseph M. Siracusa, has authored and co-authored numerous books on nuclear history, including  Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction ,  A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race: Weapons, Strategy and Politics  and  A History of US Nuclear Testing and Its Influence on Nuclear Thought, 1945-1963.

Professor Joseph M. Siracusa, has authored and co-authored numerous books on nuclear history, including Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction, A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race: Weapons, Strategy and Politics and A History of US Nuclear Testing and Its Influence on Nuclear Thought, 1945-1963.

Joseph M. Siracusa, Professor of Human Security and International Diplomacy at RMIT University, is one of the experts I interviewed for the story.

A seasoned media commentator, Professor Siracusa gave an energetic and frenetic interview but I only used a relatively small proportion of the conversation in my story. 

Below is a Q&A featuring a large proportion of the interview that didn’t appear in the story.

Professor Siracusa talks about the threat of nuclear weapons, nuclear diplomacy, the roadblocks to disarmament and Australia's conflicted position on a nuclear ban.

It’s worth noting that the questions asked were in the context of researching the Kill Your Darlings story, so they don't begin and end as they would if this interview were purposed for this blog. This ought not prove, erm, deterrence, however.

ME: What are some of the quintessential ways alarmists depict the nuclear threat?

PROFESSOR SIRACUSA: I think the alarmists are on the side of reality really. I mean, the President has 12 minutes to launch his strategic nuclear weapons if the United States is under attack, so that time to respond is getting smaller and smaller and everybody else’s nuclear weapons are on 15 minute alerts.

In the Able Archer exercise in 1983, we nearly had a nuclear launch because the Soviets thought that there were incoming nuclear missiles, and there have been a number of occasions during the Cuban Missile Crisis where we thought we were on the brink – and we were just probably minutes away from a nuclear war.

And nuclear weapons, of course, are the holy grail or terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and al-Nusra and ISIS....
— Professor Joseph Siracusa

The North Korean thing is very serious, because we’re only one miscalculation away. And what’s more alarmist than when President Obama said in Prague (2009) that the number one threat today in the world is nuclear terrorism?

And nuclear weapons, of course, are the holy grail of terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and al-Nusra and ISIS and the rest of them, and if they can get their hands on one of these, or steal one or buy one and the rest of it….

I try to be very moderate about this; I’ve written about 10 books on nuclear weapons – some very popular books – and I try to take a very measured approach but, at the same time, when the “alarmists” talk about how close we are, I think there’s something to be said for that actually.

Why haven’t we had a nuclear exchange since 1945? Well, people like Gareth Evans say that it’s just dumb luck that this hasn’t happened. Other people argue that maybe the spread of nuclear weapons makes the world safer, instead of more dangerous; that’s another argument.

The most alarming thing for me is that, in the entire history of arms negotiations (this has included banning weapons at the bottom of the sea and on the moon and the rest of it), we have never, once, counted tactical nuclear weapons.

Credit: Ralf Schlesener

Credit: Ralf Schlesener

There are thousands of these in the world today with 10 times the explosive power of Hiroshima. We’ve never had a negotiation on tactical nuclear weapons. Everything you see – the large numbers – are strategic nuclear weapons. But the United States has about 400, I think, tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. I know that Putin was bragging about his several thousand.

These things are all over the place ad nobody has any real idea of how many there are or where they are or what we can do about them. So, yeah, I think the “alarmists” have something to be alarmed about.

What’s your view on the role the nuclear ban treaty could and should play in addressing the security considerations of nuclear states?

I think 130 nations are signed on to the debate that’s going to come up and none of them have nuclear weapons. They also understand that none of the nuclear weapons states are going to show up for this.

So, I think the significance of this debate is to raise the awareness about the seriousness of these weapons – which is a constant vigilant problem.

Credit:   James Lerager

Credit:  James Lerager

Anything that raises awareness in the international community is a good thing. Are they going to succeed very much? Well, probably not…. 

Noone’s going to be able to get rid of these nuclear weapons, except one way. I’m not looking for a magic formula here. I think in 1928 or so, we had a treaty to end all wars: the Kellogg-Brian Pact. Well, how long did that last? About 10 years or less, and so, what we have to hope for one day is that we’re going to wake up one morning and we’re going to find out that these nuclear weapons are anachronisms, the way canons replaced the longbow.

I mean, they’re going to be replaced by laser-energy weapons and there’s going to be no reason on God’s earth to maintain or supply nuclear weapons to anybody, so they’re going to be turning to other things in order to inflict potential violence on each other.

I think we have to kind of hold our breath and hold our nerve until these weapons no longer make any sense.

In what ways can nuclear deterrence be considered successful in the event of any future nuclear catastrophes?

I held a big nuclear conference here in Melbourne about 18 months ago and invited all the Harvard and MIT people and some Brits and others and we talked about how to do what you’re talking about right here.

The room tended to divide into two groups. Team Deterrence, which believes that nuclear diplomacy has been successful; we resolved all the major issues during the Cold War. And the other side of the room are the abolitionists, who are all gravitating towards the nuclear ban. They want to get rid of nuclear weapons but they don’t have a clue in the world about how to do this really.

And then I always say to them, "Is it possible that maybe the existence of nuclear weapons has prevented World War III?" I don’t know; maybe it has or maybe it hasn’t. But I think there are a number of successful nuclear negotiations that have put a lid on things (the Cuban Missile Crisis, as example)….

One of Professor Siracusa's books of weapons of mass destruction.

One of Professor Siracusa's books of weapons of mass destruction.

We have all these wonderful negotiations in the 1960s and 1970s by people no less than Richard Nixon with the ABM Treaty (Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) with the Soviet Union, the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties and then a number of successful treaties under President Reagan – whom I didn’t hold much prospect for in the beginning.

I think diplomacy not only has a major role but I think it’s the only role in the nuclear world.

If there was a nuclear catastrophe in the next 20 years, at that point, is it then still possible to say that deterrence has been successful?

It’s held up since 1945. But if there is a breakdown – and the breakdown could come in South Asia between Pakistan and India tomorrow or it could happen in North East Asia, in 20 minutes from now – it would be a breakdown in negotiations and the role diplomacy.

Then we’d go back to the drawing board.

A nuclear exchange between the non-superpowers would not be the end of the world.  What it would be is a demonstration to the world about the evil and ugliness of these kinds of weapons. There’d be a rebuild but a nuclear exchange would become a wakeup call to the next generation of citizens to get these things off the table.

Mind you, even when you get them off the table, you still have human nature. I understand from my friends at the UN that, in 48 hours in Rwanda, 400,000 people were killed with machetes. So you don’t need nuclear weapons to wreak havoc in a place.

You’ve got to control this lust that we have. Human beings have this incredible inclination to want to kill each other. I think it’s extraordinary. We’re the only animals in the kingdom that just do it for that kind of a reason and that kind of aggressiveness. And it’s not like we’re eating each other. We don’t have to do that.

So I think if there were a nuclear exchange it would be a wakeup to call to the next generation. Would that force the nuclear states to give up their weapons? On the contrary, people would say we need them more now than ever, because we can’t give up ours in these perilous times.

In 2017, what is a centrist approach to nuclear disarmament and where does Australia sit on the spectrum?

…. During the 1980s, I was in a number of debates and, in those days, the peace movement argued that nuclear weapons made Australia a nuclear target.

Credit: Ralf Schlesener

Credit: Ralf Schlesener

That’s absolutely correct, and the war on terrorism also makes Australia a nuclear target by its relationship with the United States. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the Australian people adhere to the ANZUS Treaty, so there’s kind of that built-in schizophrenia in the Australian character. They want the protection of a superpower; if it wasn’t the United States, it was Britain before that; they want a great and powerful friend but at the same time they want to go to conferences around the world and talk about the necessity of getting rid of nuclear weapons.

If you want to get rid of nuclear weapons, you just check out of the ANZUS Treaty, so you’re not invested in American nuclear deterrence any more, and then they become a serious player.

Evan Dando, Howler, June 1

According to Handsome Tours, Evan Dando's Australian solo tour is in the name of the reissue of Baby I'm Bored, his hazy 2003 solo record, but the Lemonheads singer/songwriter's sense of occasion is imperceptible at Howler tonight.

Some time after showtime, he's still back stage, audibly hollering something akin to what you'd expect from somebody trying to get into their pants to answer the door.

When he eventually does appear before the anticipatory meat-locker of an audience and hastily sets to strapping on his guitar (with the assistance of guardian-like collaborator Marciana Jones, of side-lark The Sandwich Police), the groggy pools of pink, blue and yellow stage lights expose his squirrelly demeanour.

Marciana Jones, Evan Dando's band mate in in The Sandwich Police came and went here and there. 

Marciana Jones, Evan Dando's band mate in in The Sandwich Police came and went here and there. 

Later on, Dando will wrestle his way out of the table cloth of an unbuttoned shirt he's wearing over a moth-eaten t-shirt, and he will dump it on the carpeted stage with the delinquent aplomb of a teenager home from school an hour before his folks set to white-knuckling back through peak hour, but there's the imminent 60-song set to start edging through first.

Rather like The Replacements', the hallmarks of Dando's career are his propensity to ebulliently conceive influential guitar-pop that fans still take to heart decades later and his predilection for blacklisting himself from broader mainstream appeal by rolling his eyes back into his head until it's just the cleaner sweeping around him.

Tonight's performance is consistent with this notion.

... Dando’s iconic status as a quintessential monument of 90s alternative slacker-rock means he’s perpetually blessed with the gluey watchability of a Tussaud’s wax figure incarnate.

Barbie hair and drunk-and-disorderly charm in tact, Dando segues between lucid and faithful renditions and throwaway medleys of material from Baby I'm Bored and halcyon-times Lemonheads ('If I Could Talk I'd Tell You' runs about 10 seconds); he human jukeboxes through eclectic covers (everything from Townes Van Zandt's 'I'll be Here in the Morning' to Whitney Houston's 'How Will I Know') and lapses into the occasional trashy open mic-jam night indulgence.

Irrespective of where it hits and where it misses, Dando's iconic stature as a quintessential monument of 90s alternative slacker-rock means he's perpetually blessed with the gluey wathchability of a Tussaud's wax figure incarnate. 

Dando, who recently turned 50, is on a health kick nowadays. He's on record stating heroin is out, which only leaves weed and cocaine.

He performs tonight with a bandaid on his thumb and tremors in the hand that that thumb is attached to but it's his right hand that keeps dropping his elusive orange guitar pick. 

He almost admonishes himself for partying too hard today but after reckoning with himself, resolves to the room that, if it's doing nothing for them, it certainly is for him.

It's one of the many highlights of the show.

Post-script: Dando's New Zealand tour scheduled to follow Australia (June 3-4) was cancelled after he was denied entry into the country.


A Q&A with Criminal's Phoebe Judge

Criminal's artwork is by illustrator  Julienne Alexander .

Criminal's artwork is by illustrator Julienne Alexander.

Award-winning journalist Phoebe Judge is the presenter of Criminal, a Radiotopia-backed podcast about an eclectic variety of crimes told through the eyes of the perpetrators, victims and those affected.

Probably like many, I discovered Criminal through hit crime podcast Serial (Criminal launched first), and began to binge on it for its warm-toned production, air-tight storytelling and the window it opened into off-beat worlds populated by everybody from female serial killers to end-of-life companions to leprosy patients.

This Q&A with Judge - extracted from our initial phone interview for a newspaper feature I wrote about the advancement of Australian podcasting - is the second in a small series of interviews I’m publishing on this blog about the culture, aesthetics, technology and economics of podcasting.

It details some of Judge's experiences making Criminal, which she does alongside co-creator Lauren Spohrer.

ME: How much time do you allocate to making an episode of Criminal?

JUDGE: It really depends on the episode. Some episodes are pretty simple in the sense that I just interview one person and it’s a rather straight-forward story and a very personal story and so it goes a lot faster.

Other episodes take a lot more time because we’re interviewing multiple people but we’re also doing a lot of fact-checking.

Because we’re a show that deals with crime, we need to get things right. So we spend an awful lot of time on the phone with county clerk officers, trying to get court records and such.

The simplest episode, from start to finish (takes)… about 25 hours, and that’s the simplest. The most complex episode takes much more time - way over 40 hours. 

But I still have a full-time job in public radio. We do this on the night and weekends. Lauren is full-time now but I would say anywhere from 25 to 70 hours on an episode is fair.

What are the major stages involved in the creation of each episode of Criminal?

We share the work rather evenly.

The first step is coming up with a story idea and that involves a lot of research and looking around and always having our eyes open. We’re constantly looking for interesting stuff.

Then we’ll check with the other person and say, ‘Do you think this might be a good idea?’ Then we’ll reach out to the person and do a pre-interview - Lauren usually does those. It’s usually around half an hour to 45 minutes. We just talk to the person and see if they’re a good fit, if they’re willing to do this and to get some background information. 

Then we’ll make a question line and that question line is kind of the guide map for what I’ll use when we conduct the interview. 

Most of the time we also have to find a studio for the guest to go into, so we’re doing all logistics. Then I most often will do the interview with the guest and it usually lasts about an hour per guest. We’ll then transcribe the interview, save a copy of it and one of us will take the lead on writing the episode – the first draft.

Well, I completely agree that anybody can do this, in terms of the equipment and what you need. For more than a year, we made Criminal in a closet....

Once that first draft is done, we have a long first edit, usually about three hours, and then after that first edit, the person who has taken the lead on the episode will go back, rewrite or fix/correct the script, then a second edit.

Then I’ll go into a studio and track my narration, and after that Lauren starts to put the whole piece together - we pick music – and then we often-times send the piece off to be mastered by an engineer. 

From that point, we’ll publish it. We’ll push it out on iTunes, promote it, write episode copy and push it out on the podcast.

Anybody with a smartphone can produce and publish a podcast - and there are success stories about people who have done so - but how intrinsic do you consider your radio background to be to the development of Criminal?

Well, I completely agree that anybody can do this, in terms of the equipment and what you need. For more than a year, we made Criminal in a closet with a microphone and a simple set up.

I think the benefit that we’ve had in the fact that all three of us who originally created Criminal have spent our lives in public radio, making and crafting stories, is that that also takes a skill. There’s a skill to making a good-sounding podcast and then there’s a skill to crafting a story.

And we’re lucky because we’ve had a lot of years of practice in that. But when we started Criminal, the reason the podcast appealed to us is that, even with all of that full-time experience in public radio, it didn’t mean that we were going to get Criminal on the radio. So what the podcast allowed for was us to take our skill and put something out that we could find an audience for.

The medium allowed us to get our foot in the door, just like anybody else sitting in their closet doing the obscure podcast…. It is a level playing field in terms of who can put a podcast out. 

How would you compare your podcast voice to your everyday voice?

Well, I hope it’s not that much different. I mean, I think the goal with our voice is that we sound natural and real, so I always try to sound as normal as possible, but I think certainly when you’re narrating or hosting something, our goal is to be calm, because this show has that type of quality to it. 

It’s not a loud show and it’s not a fast show, and it’s not a particularly funny show… but I hope my narrating quality sounds somewhat like my voice. 

It’s a reserved tone that we try to put through with Criminal.

Whenever you walk into a room, you read the crowd. You don’t walk into a sombre meeting and start yelling and laughing. You understand the audience and the topic and you act accordingly, and I hope that, because Criminal is sometimes a very dark and sometimes a reflective show, the way that we’ve decided it will be presented is with reverence.

I hope my voice shows reverence, to not only the topic and subject, but also the guest.

What do you consider to be some of the most essential elements to making an aesthetically pleasing podcast?

Because I’ve spent so much time near a microphone, I’m very critical of the quality of the recordings. I’m a big fan of people who record their subjects very close and also high-quality narration and tracking.

If you’re going to host a podcast, you don’t have to have a real studio; you don’t have to have a fancy studio; you don’t even have to have a fancy microphone. But what you should do is find a towel in your house and put it over your head and read your script underneath at least a towel if you can’t get into a closet. 

Because I think that, when we are demanding this attention of our listeners – and we are saying, ‘Put me in your ears and listen to me.’ – there’s a responsibility on the podcasters end to make it the highest quality they can.

That doesn’t have to be really expensive and it doesn’t have to be very skilled but we can control our environment. We can put that microphone close to our mouth or the person we’re interviewing. And also we can make the sound in the room we’re recording in as good as possible.

I recorded for two-and-a-half years underneath a towel in my living room when I was a reporter, and no one would have known the difference.

What are some examples of the factors you take into consideration when you make editorial decisions about the podcast?

We’re a small team (me and Lauren), so we always kind of rely on each other to be the devil’s advocate. 

We always just want to surprise people, so for us, the editorial decisions come from, ‘Well, what was our last episode? Is this episode as dark as that episode? Is this episode about a victim? Is it about a perpetrator?’ 

We always want to change it up. So we think about all those different questions in thinking about what our next story will be. Have we talked to a woman recently? What types of racial diversity do we have on our program? What types of regional diversity? Are we doing all stories in New York? Have we done any stories in California? Have we done any small-town stories?

How has your experience making Criminal changed since joining Radiotopia?

It’s given us a peer group. It’s given us an organisational model.

We have full editorial control of our show. Lauren and I own Criminal. So what Radiotopia does is takes care of a lot of the stuff that we aren’t good at, so we can make the show.

They sell our sponsorship ads. They take care of marketing and promotion. So Radiotopia has allowed us to have champions in our corner. 

It’s not only financial support. It’s also having people who believe in the show. 

It’s made a great difference and we still feel really thankful they took a chance on us.

All Ears on Podcasting

Joel Zammit, founder of Melbourne-based podcast collective   Sanspants Radio  , in the control room recording comedy podcast   Shut Up a Second  .

Joel Zammit, founder of Melbourne-based podcast collective Sanspants Radio, in the control room recording comedy podcast Shut Up a Second.

The following Q&A is part of a pair of interviews I conducted with Joel Zammit, founder of Melbourne comedy podcasting collective Sanspants Radio, for a feature article I wrote about Australian podcasting in The Age’s Livewire lift out last week.

The interview with Joel is one of a series of podcasting-related Q&As I’m publishing on this blog in the next few weeks. The overall conversation will focus further on the culture, aesthetics, economics, production and technology of podcasting as Australian podcasters contemplate how to capitalise on what’s widely been dubbed a “podcasting renaissance”, in the wake of blockbuster podcast Serial.

ME: Was there a particular event or experience that was the inspiration for establishing Sanspants Radio?

JOEL: I was teaching a La Trobe University first-year subject about audio documentaries and there’s this really nice studio at the university that’s under-utilised, so I really wanted to bring back a radio/podcast network to La Trobe because they used to have a radio station before my time, and I wanted to start that up again.

At that stage, were you conceiving of it more as a podcast or a podcast collective?

I think more as a podcast, just to see what we can do out there. We’d tried to do a podcast about a year or so earlier but it fell by the wayside.

I did a media course and my passion was in audio entertainment. I was wanting to create a little space where people got used to using mic, behind the mic, as well as editing things together to see where it could take you.

There wasn’t really any sort of idea of what I wanted or where we wanted to go initially. Because I was teaching a lot about This American Life and Freakonomics, and using those as examples of what you can do now.

Yeah, the beauty about podcasting is that anybody can do it; we’re doing something that a lot of radio stations can’t do....
— Joel Zammit

There is a slew of podcasting stories out there referencing the breakthrough impact of Serial on podcasting. It's obviously a good news story but has the associated "podcasting renaissance" hype linked to Serial had any discernible flow-on benefit for Sanspants?

On the peripheral, maybe. Serial's success owes a lot to the fact that it was pitched on This American Life, which had spent so much time to accumulate a million downloads an episode.

Ira Glass (host of This American Life), I think, gave interviews where he came out and said, 'Serial is one of the first podcasts to hit a million downloads.' You know, it took This American Life four or five years to get to that point, or longer, whereas it took Serial a week, and that's very good and all but it has This American Life listeners to bounce off.

Sarah Koenig (centre), creator and host of Serial, with Ira Glass and the Serial team.

Sarah Koenig (centre), creator and host of Serial, with Ira Glass and the Serial team.

So the success of Serial, not to take anything away from it; well done for putting it (podcasting) more in the public eye, but I don't know, it just seems like, 'Yeah, but it was kind of like an offshoot of This American Life, which already had an audience inbuilt.' So, well done, but it's not as great as everyone said.

What's the background of Sanspants getting featured on iTunes?

We went from maybe 500 people listening to 10,000. We can guess and put some theories to how it happened. We used to have one feed for all our shows and then we eventually moved over to a different website, which enabled us to split the feed so we had different shows in different feeds and then we re-uploaded to iTunes.

From there,we pestered and bugged our family, friends, cohorts and friends on Facebook etc. to kind of go in download, subscribe, rate and review, and maybe that bumped us to the top of the queue or made a bit of a blip in iTunes' radar.

From there they sent an email to ask us to send some art work because they wanted to feature us. And then we were on the front page of iTunes a week later.

What are the quintessential elements of an aesthetically pleasing podcasting experience for you?

A lot of podcasts out there are very much just two people with a microphone in a basement or a lounge room.... and that is one of the first things that will turn me off listening. Same if not a lot of care has been taken in the editing process.

I’m the primary editor for everything we put out and there’s a lot of care that goes into making sure what we put out there is listenable. It can be as simple as cutting out a one-second pause and making it .5 seconds. Or getting rid of some of the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘likes’; all these mannerisms people have when they speak that don’t make for the best speech.

Yeah, the beauty about podcasting is that anybody can do it; we’re doing something that a lot of radio stations can’t do; we don’t have censorship and we can talk about anything we want to talk about, which is great, but that the same time, you can put a bit of care into what you’re doing.

So generally for me, it’s the sound itself but also what people are talking about and if it makes sense. I don’t want to have to hear a rambling story.

Some people really like it over-produced like Radiolab and Freakonomics, where they have a lot of production values, and that’s great but some people hate it.

One podcast I listen to a lot is called Lore, and also the Mythology podcast, and they’re very similar in what they do. They’ll have one person speaking and have soundscapes behind them to make it sound a bit more interesting and dynamic.

But then you have something like Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men. Being a comic book fan, I’m like, ‘Oh great, this is fantastic. This is two people who love the comic book talking about the comic book and making lucid observations.’

When people see this as not just as a hobby but as a hobby they also put a bit of time, care and love into it, I think that can show through in the podcast.

What makes podcasts so conducive to binge listening for you?

You can kind of do it while you’re doing something else. Generally when I’m listening to podcasts, it’s while I’m doing the dishes, driving, walking and that kind of stuff.

It doesn’t require a lot of time and focus.

The particular podcasts that we produce aren’t as timely as other places. Because we’re not a news program and we’re not relying on what happened this week, so you can listen to one after the other. But I think bingeing on something that might be a news program is a lot harder to do.

To what extent do you think the “stickiness” of podcasts complicates things for dedicated music fans trying to navigate their way through a really crowded audio entertainment space? Are they complementary to or competitive with one another?

I know when there’s a good audio book out I tend to lose a few weeks in terms of podcasting. It’s interesting that you have a certain amount of audio real estate and something comes along and it takes up a lot of time.

With podcasting, we get these emails from people every now and again reflecting this idea that the podcasts help get them through a tough time. If you’re in that headspace where you might be a little bit alone or wanting to turn your brain off and let some other people chat, you can do that a lot more easily with people chatting than you can playing music in a way. Yeah, music is great and you can have those moments where you can just tune out but, at the same time, if you’re missing that human contact or connection and you want to listen to people have a chat about comic books or films or whatever, you can do that.

I think that might be why, for a certain group of people, podcasts are reigning supreme, particularly over music.

In the Dark

For a feature article appearing in the October issue of Jetstar Magazine (forthcoming), I recently spent a few weeks attending a number of ghost tours (one at Pentridge Prison; one at 'J Ward Lunatic Asylum' and one in the CBD) to research the way the Victorian ghost tourism industry is assembled to engender the experience of fear in tourists.

It was a delight to observe other tourists engaged with what they perceived to be ghosts but I had no such encounters. Not that it mattered. The Pentridge and J Ward buildings were theatres of awe-inspiring institutional atmosphere. If places should be haunted, these are it.

On the J Ward tour, our tour guide took us to a bathroom said to be so infested with poltergeists that a number of guides steer a wide berth.

A bathroom at J Ward: a hotspot for supernatural beasties, ghost tour guides say. 

A bathroom at J Ward: a hotspot for supernatural beasties, ghost tour guides say. 

Interestingly, the majority of our group did too. Although I consider myself a non-believer in ghosts, my visit to the bathroom was nevertheless hasty.

One of the interview subjects for my feature, Dr Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, is a fountain of perspective on why. Kerr is presently travelling the globe to participate in a slew of scary/thrill-seeker experiences to research how and why people enjoy thrilling and scary situations, for her forthcoming book, SCREAM: Adventures in the Upside of Fear. In our interview, she shared a lot of interesting insights into the inherent scariness of ghost tourism. I couldn't include it all in my feature, so I have included the extended interview below.


During my tour of J Ward, old strait jackets, beds and medical instruments were positioned around the institution to give the appearance they had been left untouched since the institution closed down. When these types of props and artefacts appear to be left untouched in this environment, what impact do they have on the intensity of the atmosphere?

In my visit to Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, they did a lot of this type of set design. For example, they had a coffin in the morgue and it was obviously a prop - not a real artefact. When customers are on a ghost tour and in that state of suspended disbelief, these props can enhance the immersion in the space and further the thrilling nature of the experience. They can help customers imagination set the scene and really “see” the space as the story describes it.

However, if the customer thinks too much about it and takes themselves out of the story it can actually work against the thrilling experience. For example when I was touring Hillview in New Castle PA, everything looked exactly as it was when it was abandoned and I was in awe of the beauty that can be found in abandoned spaces. And then I saw a bunch of stuffed animals on a bed. That immediately took me out of the moment as I realised it was staged and wondered what else had been modified, which took away from my appreciation of the history of the buildings. It’s OK to modify a space to show what it was like for historical accuracy - for example, Eastern State has a few cells that are set to look as they did when it was open - but in those instances it is very obvious and stated that this is a recreation meant to educate.

You needn't perceive or believe in paranormal activity on ghost tours to feel reluctant to go into certain spaces alone or in groups. If you were scouting for an allegedly haunted place in the hope you'd successfully spook even the staunchest of non-believers, what characteristics would you be seeking?

I think that if the goal is to scare customers on a ghost tour, then essentially the owners are running a haunted house attraction.  The serious ghost hunters I’ve interviewed (people who have travelled hundreds of miles and spent thousands of dollars searching for ghosts) do not actually go in wanting to be scared; they want to find ghosts and have an adventure.

The places that have been called “the most haunted”, like Hillview, West Virginia Penn, Eastern State Penn, and Trans Allegheny, all have very different approaches to how they run their ghost hunts.  Hillview, TALA, and West VA Penn do purposefully play up the whole "haunted" nature of the space and take customers to pre determined areas where usually there are props and tight spaces, rooms in states of ruin and themed lighting. The tour guides talk about especially haunted areas, tell ghost stories and talk about the best ways to find ghosts.

ESP on the other hand simply allows ghost hunters to come into the space. There is no programming or "ghost tour". Tour guides are there only for supervision; they are prohibited from telling ghost stories or telling people where ghosts have been seen. If a space is haunted, and you believe it’s haunted, you don’t need any set designs or props to prove the point. 

What was the most intense moment you experienced on the Eastern State Penn tour?

I don’t actually believe in ghosts, but observing the paranormal investigation with the group did get my heart rate going. It definitely is all about that suspension of disbelief and allowing yourself just for a moment to think maybe, maybe something is going to happen. When we were down one of the cell blocks the psychic in the group began talking to a ghost she was seeing at the end of the hall. Everyone fell completely silent and waited and watched. It was a great moment of anticipation and it was exhilarating to just think about the idea that something was about to happen. As one of the investigators said when I asked her why she does this: "It’s so much fun, it’s an adventure every time."

Some ghost tours require tourists to be over 18. What does this say about the nature of the atmosphere the tourists would be experiencing?

A lot of tours happen in buildings that are in a state of ruin and they don’t want the children to get hurt. They are also at night in large groups and concerns over who is responsible for watching the kids and keeping them safe is a real question (parents or owners?). Restricting age to over 18 can also bring down liability insurance, so there is a financial incentive. Rarely it’s because the content is "too extreme", unless they’ve done a lot of set design, bringing it more in line with a haunted house rather than a ghost tour. The ghost tour I went on the Central Cemetery in Bogota however was very intense. They had live actors recreating scenes of death that would probably have been to much for a child. I also went on a really fun ghost tour in North Carolina that included a lot of R rated comedic interpretations of ghost stories, so the content wasn’t too scary, it was too explicit. 

To stage a ghost tour that engenders a really energetic and intense response from participants, what would be your ideal type of participants?

If the goal of the tour is to provide a fun, entertaining, and thrilling experience, then you really want customers who are willing and eager to suspend their rational and logical thought and let their imagination go wild. People who actively work at NOT engaging with the stories that they are hearing, and who do NOT imagine what it might have been like in the space they are touring are not going to have as much fun. Anyone who wants to enjoy these types of experiences needs to just let themselves get lost in the story, then it can feel like you’re starring in your own scary movie.  

Are you able to give any insight into why a rationale mindset is overridden by an irrational mindset in scenario's like these?

Madeleine Doran talked about the variety of ways we can experience the marvelous, ranging from full belief that what you’re seeing is real (ie. I think a ghost is in front of me and it’s scary); they deny what they are seeing or hearing is real but do feel that gut reaction telling them to be scared and finally they can completely suspend their disbelief to experience the moment. The most fun is the complete suspension of disbelief of course. 

What's good fear versus bad fear on a ghost tour?

Good fear is all in the meaning making, meaning it’s up to the individual to cognitively interpret the experiences as enjoyable or traumatic. The same experience can be interpreted entirely differently by two people. For some having a tour guide tell a descriptive story of a tragic death which left the space haunted by the spirits can be a really thrilling to hear and they’ll interpret their own scared response as enjoyable. But for others, who may have the same physiological reaction, that story is interpreted as too tragic, too traumatic and NOT fun. Enjoyment of thrilling material is incredibly individualized.

At the end of the day ghost tours can be a really fun way to learn about the history of a building or a place, especially for folks looking for something a little bit more exhilarating than a dry historical tour. But companies should take special effort to inform customers of fact vs. fiction and make it clear whether a ghost tour is for entertainment or actual ghost hunting. The perpetuation of false and sensationalised information can actually be really detrimental to the institution hosting the tours. I think Eastern State is a great example of how to do this right. They very clearly differentiate their historical and educational programs from their facility rental offerings (which is essentially what a ghost hunt is), and their program's meant to thrill and entertain, which is Terror Behind the Walls. Trying to mix these goals or sensationalise stories in a dishonest way to increase the intrigue, in my opinion, really degrades the integrity of the institution.